We laugh ev­ery day – it’s the glue that holds us to­gether...

HAV­ING RE­COV­ERED FROM A TER­RI­FY­ING HEALTH CRI­SIS, FOR­MER GOGGLEBOX STAR STEPH PARKER TELLS GABRIELLE FA­GAN ABOUT HER SON’S AUTISM AND HOW SHE COPES WITH THE DE­MANDS OF FAM­ILY LIFE

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STEPH PARKER can’t re­ally re­call be­ing “min­utes from death” af­ter de­vel­op­ing dou­ble pneu­mo­nia.

“I had started go­ing a bit mad be­cause I had no oxy­gen in my sys­tem,” says Steph, 52, who found fame with her hus­band Dom as Gogglebox’s en­ter­tain­ing, witty and boozy arm­chair crit­ics. “I didn’t re­alise how se­ri­ously ill I was be­cause when you are that sick, you don’t know what’s go­ing on at all.”

The cou­ple run a Kent B&B as well as jug­gling their ra­dio and TV com­mit­ments (they quit Gogglebox in late 2016) and have two chil­dren – daugh­ter, Honor, 15, and 18-year-old son Max, who has autism and se­vere epilepsy.

“Life’s very busy – I also help my sis­ter with our fa­ther, who has de­men­tia – and some­times I feel my feet never touch the ground,” adds Steph, whose health cri­sis hap­pened at Christ­mas. “I think with the fes­tiv­i­ties on top, I’d pushed my­self too far and it was just sheer ex­haus­tion that al­lowed in­fec­tion in.

“I’d had a bad cough and felt run down but I just got worse very quickly. Dom called an am­bu­lance on Box­ing Day. The paramedics told him that if I’d been left an­other 20 min­utes, I might have died.

“My lungs had given up and I was rushed to in­ten­sive care and pumped full of an­tibi­otics.

“I got an in­fec­tion in my heart so I was kept in a while longer, but thank­fully I got through it all.

“It’s taken months to get over it – not just the ill­ness but the shock.

“I still get tired quite eas­ily but apart from that, there’s no last­ing ef­fect,” ex­plains Steph, who along­side Dom, has teamed up with Boots UK to pro­mote its new on­line pre­scrip­tion ser­vice.

“I’ve been very good at look­ing af­ter ev­ery­body else but not paid much at­ten­tion to my own care.

“It was very close to go­ing dis­as­trously wrong, and I know now it’s im­por­tant,” she adds.

“If I break down then ev­ery­one else around me breaks. I have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for my health for the sake of my­self and the fam­ily.”

She has height­ened aware­ness of this be­cause of Max’s needs.

Seizures since he was four have left him with a men­tal age of six, and they live in con­stant dread that Max will one day have a fa­tal seizure.

The cou­ple bravely re­vealed his con­di­tion ear­lier this year in a mov­ing Chan­nel 4 doc­u­men­tary, Steph & Dom: Can Cannabis Save Our Son? (avail­able on All4).

Some re­search has shown that med­i­cal mar­i­juana/CBD may ef­fec­tively con­trol cer­tain seizures, but there is con­tro­versy over al­low­ing the treat­ment in the UK.

Two months ago, Max joined an “early ac­cess” pro­gramme and is re­ceiv­ing treat­ment over 20 weeks.

Steph is emo­tional as she re­veals Max re­cently gave Dom a “huge hug, a proper hug”.

“That’s never hap­pened be­fore in 18 years be­cause Max doesn’t like to be touched. Dom was so shocked he nearly fell to the ground.

“I’ve never had a hug, never. All I’ll get is a head­butt in my chest, so to see him spon­ta­neously run up to daddy and put his arms around him was un­be­liev­able. It was amaz­ing and made both of us cry.

“Since he’s been on the treat­ment – we’re about half­way through – there’s def­i­nitely been an im­prove­ment in his men­tal aware­ness.”

They’ve also no­ticed im­prove­ment in Max’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“His speech is very poor but at the mo­ment we’re get­ting full sen­tences and he’s us­ing the right words.

“We’re stag­gered as we’ve never had that be­fore.”

Wary af­ter so many years of dashed hopes, she’s de­ter­mined not to be­come over-ex­cited how­ever.

“We have to man­age our ex­pec­ta­tions. This treat­ment is one in a long line of things that have been tried and it may have no (per­ma­nent) ef­fect.

“I have to be clear about that, other­wise you just get your heart bro­ken ev­ery five min­utes.”

There’s no trace of self-pity in this warm, down-to-earth woman, who ex­plains that hu­mour is the shield she and Dom, 53, use to help them cope with life’s chal­lenges and their worry about Max, who can suf­fer up to 120 seizures a day.

“We laugh ev­ery day. We have to – not be­cause we’re ir­rev­er­ent, dis­re­spect­ful, or thought­less, but be­cause it’s the glue that holds us to­gether and keeps us from be­ing very sad,” she says.

“The early days, when Max was lit­tle and we didn’t un­der­stand what was wrong, were ter­ri­fy­ing. At first we thought he might get bet­ter in time, but as the years have gone by there’s been a slow ero­sion of hope. We’ve man­aged by lit­er­ally tak­ing one step at a time. Peo­ple say, ‘How do you cope?’ But you cope be­cause you have no choice.

She de­scribes re­liv­ing what they’ve gone through for the doc­u­men­tary as a “gi­ant step”.

“It was very hard and mov­ing, but we hoped that if we could use be­ing well-known to go pub­lic with his story and move things for­ward, and help Max and the other young­sters that suf­fer, it was worth it.”

Steph and Dom – first spot­ted in 2013 on Chan­nel 4’s Four In A Bed re­al­ity show about B&B own­ers – were a hit on Gogglebox, which launched their show­biz ca­reer.

They now host a Talk Ra­dio show and are film­ing a new Chan­nel 4 se­ries on cou­ples chang­ing their lives to run coun­try B&Bs.

Their part­ner­ship is at the heart of Steph’s well­be­ing. “Be­ing with Dom and go­ing through ev­ery­thing to­gether, talk­ing about our day, go­ing through things with a fine-tooth comb so we to­tally un­der­stand what’s go­ing on and what we both feel is cru­cial to my well­be­ing and, of course, so is the fam­ily and friend­ship.”

She looks back on Gogglebox – the pair dubbed them­selves ‘the P****d Posh Cou­ple’ – with af­fec­tion but doesn’t miss it.

“We’d said all we had to say and it was time to move on. It has to be kept fresh with dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But that show changed the di­rec­tion of our lives and it’s been a whirl­wind that’s never re­ally stopped. You can’t buy this sort of ex­pe­ri­ence at my age. It’s been ab­so­lutely bonkers.

“I don’t think of my­self as a celebrity in any way and I don’t think the pub­lic view us like that.

“I think they like us be­cause we’re com­pletely nor­mal, just like ev­ery­body else, glass in hand want­ing to have a good time, a laugh and make the best of ev­ery­thing and not be too judge­men­tal.”

Steph adds with a smile: “When we’re not work­ing, we still like to spend most of our time curled up in front of the telly with a large glass of red. Come to think of it, that would be my ideal exit from life – I’d like to close my eyes and go to sleep and not spill my red!”

■ Steph Parker is part­ner­ing with Boots UK to launch its new, im­proved Free On­line NHS Re­peat Pre­scrip­tion Ser­vice, help­ing fam­i­lies man­age their med­i­ca­tion needs. Down­load the Boots app or visit Boots.com/ NHS for more de­tails.

Steph Parker and her hus­band Dom

Steph & Dom Parker, with their son Max for the Can Cannabis Save Our Son? doc­u­men­tary

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